There are so many very cool things to grow out there once you really start looking. The best part of gardening is seeing how things no one else has ever heard of grows....and tastes!
Some things you hear lots about, like heirloom tomatoes. Some things you don't hear so much about. Like intriguing berries...not raspberries, strawberries or blueberries. But annual berries, like the sunberry, huckleberry, jaltomate and I'll lump the physalis family in the lot too.
Lets talk a bit about the Sunberry, also known as Wonderberry, (Solanum x Burbankii)
I got the seeds for my original plants probably 10 years ago from a fellow seed collector in Pennsylvania. I was just curious about them, and I've grown them ever since.
They were described to me as being sweeter than the huckleberry, which is no great feat at all if you know the huckleberry and as being smaller.
Well that they are, and more.
These plants were originally created by Luther Burbank way back in the early 1900' s. Burbank had a very interesting career as a botanist and was responsible for more than 800 varieties of fruit, vegetable and flower strains. He is best known for the Russett Burbank potato, but also created the loved Shasta Daisy and the freestone peach. And, of course the much lesser known Sunberry.
The Sunberry was created by crossing two closely related species, Solanum Villosum and Solanum Guineense. The solanum family is the night shade family and this little plant does look similar to the deadly night shade, if you are familiar with it. It has very similar leaves and flowers, but the berries of course are deep purple, not red.
Sunberries are extremely easy to grow. If you are starting them indoors, look at the same schedule as you would tomatoes. I find seeding them in early April indoors in a nice light soil-less mix does the trick. Then I'm planting them out in the garden when they are around 8 weeks old. Add a bit of compost to your planting hole, and you are good for the season.
But don't let them become a problem! The are terrific self- seeders and this alone could be the reason that i've had them in my garden for the last ten years. They come up faithfully in the hoophouse year after year, to the point that if they didn't appear, well, I'd be surprised and a bit disappointed.
In good soil the plants grown to about 3 feet. It is said that when the berries are green they are poisonous, so I wouldn't mess around with that. But when they are ripe and a bit soft to touch, start using them. These berries are small, so for any quantity, like a pie for example, be prepared to pick a while. I guess the size is very comparable to a small currant.
As well, if you are going for a reasonably big crop to give them a good culinary trial, plant lots.. The plants don't produce huge quantities of fruit, so to be fair, put in at least 5 plants if you have the space.
The fruit itself is very mild flavoured. Mildly sweet and I always think a bit wine flavoured, when cooked and enhanced with a bit of sweetener, be it sugar or honey, they really shine. They make a great jam, tart or pie.
And if you need seed, I'll be selling it again in 2011.
To make the wonderberry jam use about a cup of washed wonderberries, 1/3 cup of sugar and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Cook until thickened and pour into a sterilized pink. Now you've made something no one else has ever heard of! and the best part?
It is REALLY good.